Monday, June 04, 2018

What They Obviously Need To Learn

Like most American kids, I grew up with a little red wagon, a classic Radio Flyer, a childhood standard that was so sturdily built that the very one that I played with still lives today, some 50 years later, on the playground at the Woodland Park Cooperative School. It was ostensibly created to haul stuff, but most of this wagon's useful life, right up to the current day, has been as a gravity powered vehicle.

Our playground is built on a long slope, a feature I wouldn't trade for all the flat space in the world, and it is indeed used for its traditional purpose. It's remarkable for this middle-aged man to watch the children year after year come up with the same idea. No one suggests it to them, just as no one suggested it to us as children; it is apparently one of those ideas that lives in the air during a certain stage of childhood. I've never witnessed a two or three year latch onto it, but invariably it is a stroke of genius to which four and five year olds are prone. All you need is a wagon, a hill, and a child passing through a certain developmental stage and Eureka! 

It begins with a long push up the hill, a full body lean against the forces of nature. Arriving at the top, the wagon poised, they clamber carefully aboard, holding the machine in place until they've taken their seats. The wagon's tongue, built for pulling, is pulled back over the bed to serve as an uncertain steering apparatus. It's what we did as children. It's what children did with this wagon last year and the year before, a process that seems to live within human animals of a certain age.

Then there is a giddy moment just before the decent begins, just as the final braking foot is lifted from the ground, a moment quite often accompanied by manic giggles. Slowly the momentum builds. Then everything is out of control. Steering is an iffy thing, uncertain, crude, and in many ways counter-intuitive. Sometimes it then all slows down again as the ground levels out, but just as often there is an obstacle looming -- a tree, a spare tire, another human crossing the path -- something that is unavoidable as you realize that you are careening pell-mell without any way to brake yourself. And for a moment the reality of breaking yourself flashes through your mind as the manic giggling erupts in earnest.

When I watch the children play this game, I am right there with them, feeling their feelings, seeing it anew through their eyes. It's a tradition, a rite, a biological imperative. I might caution others who are unknowingly wandering into their path, but I leave the children taking their wagon ride to their own devices, leaving them to learn what they obviously need to learn.

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